Fourth World: Definition and History of The Term

What is the Fourth World?

The Fourth World is an outdated term used to describe the most underdeveloped, poverty-stricken, and marginalized regions of the world.

Many inhabitants of these nations do not have any political ties and are often hunter-gatherers that live in nomadic communities, or are part of tribes. They may be fully functional and self-surviving but during the Cold War were ascribed Fourth World status based on their economic performance.

Key Takeaways

  • Fourth World refers to the most underdeveloped, poverty-stricken, and marginalized regions and populations of the world.
  • Many inhabitants of these nations do not have any political ties and are often hunter-gatherers that live in nomadic communities, or are part of tribes.
  • The outdated and offensive term Fourth World is often linked to indigenous people.

Understanding Fourth World

During the Cold War, each country was classed as belonging to a certain type of world, a position that has since evolved as these classifications have evolved. The First World was used to describe countries whose views aligned with NATO and capitalism, the Second World referred to countries that supported communism and the Soviet Union and the Third World referenced the nations that were not actively aligned with either side. These countries included impoverished former European colonies and all the nations of Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia.

The term Fourth World was born later as an extension of the developing Third World to describe places and populations characterized by extremely low income per capita and limited natural resources.

Fourth World nations consisted of those excluded from mainstream society. For example, the Aboriginal tribes in South America or Australia are entirely self-sufficient but do not participate in the global economy. These tribes can function free from any assistance from others but, from a global standpoint, were considered to be Fourth World nations. Fourth World nations do not contribute or consume anything on the global scale and are unaffected by any global events.

Political borders did not define Fourth World areas. In many cases, they were defined as nations without sovereign status, emphasizing instead the perceived non-recognition and exclusion of ethnically and religiously defined peoples from the politico-economic world system, such as the First Nations groups throughout North, Central, and South America.

History of the Fourth World Term

The term Fourth World was believed to have been first used in Canada by Mbuto Milando, the first secretary of the Tanzanian High Commission, in a conversation with George Manuel, Chief of the National Indian Brotherhood (now the Assembly of First Nations). Milando stated that "When native peoples come into their own, on the basis of their own cultures and traditions, that will be the Fourth World."

The term became synonymous with stateless, poor, and marginal nations following the publication of Manuel's The Fourth World: An Indian Reality in 1974. Since 1979, think tanks, such as the Center for World Indigenous Studies, have used the term to define the relationships between ancient, tribal, and non-industrial nations and modern political nation-states.

In 2007, the United Nations (UN) Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) was introduced to promote "minimum standards for the survival, dignity, and well-being of the indigenous peoples of the world.” Since then, communications and organizing among Fourth World peoples accelerated in the form of international treaties for trade, travel, and security.

Article Sources
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  1. George Manuel, Michael Posluns. "The Fourth World: An Indian Reality." University of Minnesota Press, 2018.

  2. United Nations. "United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples." Accessed August 23, 2020.

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